Drinks With Dead People

Raise a glass to history.

Author: Betz (page 1 of 6)

P.T. Barnum, again

Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth

Ask him about: elephant agriculture

P.T. Barnum

Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.

Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:

1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.

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Henry Bergh

Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals

Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*

Salamander the Fire-Horse

Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.

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James Jay’s Invisible Ink

Have a drink with: James Jay
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

Ask him about: passing notes in class

Invisible Ink

With the recent news that Congressional Republicans have rolled back broadband protections on the harvest and sale of Internet search data by service providers, information on how to protect the privacy of your Internet existence is in high demand.

One of the words that most often comes up in this space: encryption. One of the cornerstones of modern information security is the ability to protect information in an algorithmic shield. But if you ask Revolutionary War spies about their information security program, they’d have one thing to tell you: scrambling is good, but hiding is better.

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Mary Todd Lincoln

Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry

Ask her about: Levitating pianos

Spirit photography

George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.

Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.

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19th Century Concealed Carry

Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”

Ask them about: Background checks

If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.

Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.

But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.

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The Mainstream Media

Have a drink with: The Mainstream Media
Fake news. Sad!

Ask them about: thin-skinned Federalists

Today I’m over at the wonderful Historista blog with an essay on how the Trump administration’s media efforts to control news media echo the 1798 Sedition Act.

Go check it out!

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Thomas Nashe

Have a drink with: Thomas Nashe
It was the merry month of February…

Ask him about: Valentine’s Day plans

Though he lived in Elizabethan England, Thomas Nashe was not an unfamiliar figure to modern thinking: in his twenties, Nashe was out of college, short on funds and trying to make it as a writer in London. It was a tough time for a writer without independent wealth or consistent patronage – plague outbreaks made life dangerous and, as a practical matter, often closed the theaters that called on writers for material. And while young Thomas was very talented, let’s face it: when you’re a freelance writer, no matter how good you are sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills. Sometimes having to “prostitute my pen in hope of gain” means writing corporate sales copy, sometimes it means ghostwriting, and yes, sometimes it means reluctantly writing raunchy poems about sex toys. Welcome to the Elizabethan Cialis ad.

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19th Century Sexting

Have a drink with: Lovestruck 19th C New Yorkers
Don’t do it, girls!

Ask them about: Victorian-era sexting

In 1893, the city of Baltimore got serious about keeping harmful and degenerate behavior out of its city parks. By which it meant it was tired of kids flirting on on public property, and forbade young couples from courting in the parks lest they offend public morals. The New York press seized on the opportunity to make fun of its southern neighbor, with the World quipping: “A man must not put his arm around a woman’s waist if he has scruples about being indicted…the affectionate and spooning throng have been informed of the terribleness of the fate that will overtake them if they are caught swapping gum or tootsy-wootsying within the park limits.” They also made sure to proudly note that, in New York, “joy is unconfined.” Nyah.

Joy does have its limits, though. You may have earned the right to tootsy-wootsy in Central Park by now, but if we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times: NO SEXTING.

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Agnes Rogers

Have a drink with: Agnes Rogers
The future is female.

Ask her about: Equality, dignity, good manners, mild snark.

The other day I was reading a lifestyle blog talking about the challenge of living a halfway sane female existence in the face of social pressures that demand women be simultaneously effortless, clean, intelligent, ambitious, authentic, confident and masterful. (Also pretty. Duh.)

Surely most could empathize with the featured image, and the look of quivering overwhelm on the woman’s face as she faces a swirl of demands:

“Spend more time with your children!”
“Leave your children alone!”
“Use herbs for gracious living.”
“Is your hair dull, stringy, lifeless?”
“How much do you really know about your candidate?”
“She’s thirty-five but men still turn around to look at her.”
“Are you letting your mind go to seed?”
“It’s up to the women of this town!”
“Learn Spanish in only five minutes a day!”

Oh. Did I say lifestyle blog? I meant 1940’s coffee table book.

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The Speed Limit

Skip drinks because it’s: The Speed Limit
You there, do you know how fast you were going?

Ask it about: Can it drive 55?

Most of us like to think that history is a parade of accomplishments, but when you get down to it somebody has to invent the everyday stuff, too – and as much as it pains me to say so, my home state has done more than most in making the world a duller place. Go ahead and thank Connecticut, pioneer of the boring, for we have given you: wooden nutmeg scandals, government paperwork, car taxes, the insurance industry, and the nation’s first law school.

And as if that weren’t enough, in 1901, my home state was first in the country to set a speed limit for motor vehicles.

No city driving over 12 MPH, now. In the burbs, you can punch it up to 15.

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